“If you look at yourself in the mirror [today],” he says in a Floridian drawl, “and you see yourself three years later, you still look the same. People say, ‘Oh my gosh you’ve changed so much!’ Shit, I can’t tell… I don’t really notice it.”
Although JJ Grey & Mofro will release their fifth album, Georgia Warhorse, in late August, little has changed besides the men who make up Mofro. The lineup remains dynamic even as their signature, casual swamp-funk stays the same. And although Grey called 2008’s Orange Blossom the album he wanted to make eight years ago, “I feel pretty much the same way about every record.”
The key, he figures, is that loose vibe. As long as nothing gets too serious, the music will flow.
“The longer I go, the older I get, the less I try to be clever,” Grey says. “And the more I try to stay out of my own way. I don’t try to figure out how I’m gonna write or arrange a song. I just go to work—make shit up.”
That’s about the size of it. Grey says no matter the record, it has old songs and new songs that came up while “mowin’ the grass or drivin’ somewhere.” He carries a pocket recorder to document the song scraps that float around his head and “then I leave them alone.” Later on, he returns to the ideas in his little studio. “I see where it’ll lead. It might lead nowhere. Then again, maybe it’ll lead somewhere.”
Contrary to that lax ethos, there’s usually a bigger crowd awaiting the new stuff than there was before. They span continents and contingents—blues fans, funk aficionados and roots-music devotees all recognize an honesty in the immersive, soul-soothing music.
“To me, music is conversation,” says Grey. “And I don’t have to invent new words to impress anybody. I just tell a story. We’re all usin’ the same words to tell stories—not just people writin’ music. And to me, music is just an extension of that. It’s just more memorable because there’s a melody.”
“It’s the same thing with Georgia Warhorse. I just keep observin’ and keep lettin’ things happen. When they happen, they happen. It’s kinda hard to nail down the one thing for sure. When I’m on a roll, I just stay out of my own way and let it ride itself out.”
“Gotta Know,” a 12-year-old track on Warhorse, explains a bit more about Grey’s mellow approach. Written when he was a “kid” into such light fare as quantum physics, the song contemplates known knowns and unknown knowns. “When you start talkin’ about subatomic particles, everything’s in theory.” For example, no one has seen an electron or proton, just their effects, yet we talk about quarks—“things that make up electrons and protons. How are you gonna talk about something that makes up somethin’ you’ve never seen?”
So, you see, thinking about something too much is a fool’s game. Isn’t it best to just let nature take its course and marvel at its wonders? Of course, the answer here is yes and no—but as far as Mofro’s music goes, that’s a marvel that needs no scrutiny.
“In the end, I realized all I was lookin’ for was answers to questions that can’t be answered. I figured it out, even as an idiotic smartass kid—the mind can’t understand these things.”